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image for Audubon visits Indian Key in the Florida Keys and Key West

A Guide to John Audubon's visit to the Florida Keys 

 

 

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AUDUBON IN THE FLORIDA KEYS


 

 

INDEX

  
AUDUBON


INDIAN KEY
1832


CORMORANT


ROSEATE
TERN


GRAY
KINGBIRD


REDDISH
EGRET


LOUISIANA
HERON


SANDY KEY


WHITE IBIS


WILLET

 
ZENAIDA
DOVE


WHITE
CROWNED
PIGEON


THE AUDUBON HOUSE IN
KEY WEST


AUDUBON'S
KEY WEST


KEY WEST AFTER
AUDUBON


ROSEATE
SPOONBILL


GREAT
WHITE
HERON


GREAT
BLUE
HERON


KEY WEST
DOVE


FLAMINGOS


BLUE-
HEADED
QUAIL DOVE


FRIGATE BIRD


BROWN
PELICAN


MANGROVE
CUCKOO


TORTUGAS


SOOTY
TERN


BLACK
HEADED GULL


BROWN
NODDY


CAYENNE
TERN


BROWN
BOOBY


SANDWICH
TERN


NIGHT
HERON


GREENSHANK


GREAT
MARBLED
GODWIT


MANGO
HUMMING-
BIRD


TROPIC
BIRD




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Indian Key during Audubon's time and after

 

Audubon image of Indian Key from Birds of America 

 

INDIAN KEY

A portion of Audubon's painting of the Booby Gannet has what is believed to be a sketch of Indian Key. Click on image above to see entire Booby Gannett painting with isle in background.

While at staying at Indian Key Audubon records that there was

" . . . a room ready for me to draw in, and my assistant might have been busily engaged in skinning, while George Lehman was making a sketch of this lovely isle."

 

INDIAN KEY - LATE 1800s

image of Indian Key

The land, inhabitants, plants and animals of Florida was of interest to many readers of the more populated areas of the United States in the late 1800s. Florida had became a part of the United States early in the 1800s and remained a curiosity to many. Thus Florida was the subject of interest for a number of writers in books and magazine articles. Travelogue books and magazines such as Harper's Weekly and helped bring distant places to the reader. Sketches such as the one above helped the reader visualize the author's text. Click on the image for a larger representation.

 


Indian Key in Audubon's Time

Indian Key during Audubon's time was a small community island of about 10 acres located next to a good channel connecting Florida Bay and the Ocean and prospered as a wrecking port . Since it served as the home island for wreckers, it had a field office with a Customs Inspector for the U.S. Customs Service. The island also had a boarding house, docks, a row of houses for residents, warehouses, turtle crawls, the Tropical Hotel with bar and billiard room and a bowling alley. Indian Key was made the County Seat of newly formed Dad County four years after Audubon's visit. Audubon described it as a "beautiful rocky islet".

 

Portions from pages in Volume II of his Ornithological Biography are provided below:

"As the "Marion" neared the islet called "Indian Key", which is situated on the eastern coast of the peninsula of Florida, my heart swelled with uncontrollable delight. Our vessel once over the coral reef that every where stretches along the shore like a great wall, . . . we found ourselves a safe anchoring ground, within a few furlongs of the land. The next moment saw the oars of a boat propelling us toward the shore, and in a brief time we stood on the desired beach. With what delightful feelings did we gaze on the objects before us! -the gorgeous flowers, the singular and beautiful plants, the luxuriant trees. The balmy air which we breathed filled us with animation, so pure and salubrious did it seem ti be. The birds we saw were almost all new to us; their lovely forms appeared to be arrayed in more brilliant apparel than I had ever before seen, and as they gamboled in happy playfulness among the bushes, or glided over the light green waters, we longed to form a more intimate acquaintance with them."

"Students of nature spend little time in introductions, especially when they present themselves to persons who feel an interest in their pursuits. This was the case with Mr. Thurston, the Deputy Collector of the island , who shook us all heartily by the hand, and in a trice had a boat manned at our service. Accompanied by him, his pilot (Mr. Egan) and fishermen, off we went, and after a short pull landed on a large key. (Lignumvitae Key and several large keys which make up Islamorada are a short distance from Indian Key.) Few minutes had elapsed, when shot after shot might be heard, and down came whirling through the air the objects of our desire. One thrust himself into the tangled groves that covered all but the beautiful coral beach that in a continued line bordered the island, while others gazed on the glowing and diversified hues of the curious inhabitants of the deep. I saw one of my party rush into the limpid element, to seize on a crab, that with claws extended upwards, awaited his approach, as if determined not to give way. A loud voice called him back to the land, for sharks are as abundant along these shores as pebbles, and the hungry prowlers could not have got a more savoury dinner. "

"The pilot, besides being a first rate shot, possessed a most intimate acquaintance with the county. He had been a 'conch-diver,' and no matter what number of fathoms measured the distance between the surface of the water and its craggy bottom, to seek for curious shells in their retreat seemed to him more pastime than toil. Not a Cormorant Pelican, a Flamingo, an Ibis, or Heron, had ever in his days formed its nest without his having marked the spot; and as to the Keys to which the Doves are wont to resort, he was better acquainted with them than many fops are with the contents of their pockets. In a word he positively knew every channel that led to these islands,and every cranny along their shores . For years his employment had been to hunt those singular animals called Sea Cows or Manatees [manatees], and he had conquered hundreds of them, 'merely,' as he said, because the flesh and hide bring 'a fair price' at Havannah. He never went anywhere to land without 'Long Tom,' which proved indeed to be a wonderful gun, and which made smart havoc when charged with 'groceries,' a term by which he designated the large shot he used. In like manner, he never paddled his light canoe without having by his side the trusty javelin, with which he unerringly transfixed such fishes as he thought fit either for market or for his own use. In attacking turtles, netting, or overturning them, I doubt if his equal ever lived on the Florida coast. No sooner was he made acquainted with my errand, than he freely offered his best services, and from that moment until I left Key West he was seldom out of my hearing. "

 "While the young gentlemen who accompanied us were engaged in procuring plants, shells, and small birds, he tapped me on the shoulder, and with a smile said to me, 'Come along, I'll shew you some thing better worth your while.' To the boat we betook ourselves, with the Captain and only a pair of tars, for more he said would not answer. The yawl for a while was urged at a great rate, but as we approached a point, the oars were taken in, and the pilot alone sculling, desired us to make ready, for in a few minutes we should have 'rare sport.' As we advanced, the more slowly did we move, and the most profound silence was maintained, until suddenly coming almost in contact with a thick shrubbery of mangroves, we beheld, right before us, a multitude of pelicans. A discharge of artillery seldom produced more effect; the dead, the dying, and the wounded, fell from the trees upon the water, while those unscathed flew screaming through the air in terror and dismay. 'There,' said he, 'did not I tell you so; is it not rare sport-' The birds, one after another, were lodged under the gunwales, when the pilot desired the Captain to order the lads to pull away. Within about half a mile we reached the extremity of the key. 'Pull away,' cried the pilot,  'never mind them on the wing, for those black rascals don't mind a little firing-now, boys, lay her close under the nests.' And there we were, with four hundred cormorants' nests over our heads. The birds were sitting, and when we fired, the number that dropped as if dead  and plunged into the water was such, that I thought by some unaccountable means or other we had killed the whole colony. You would have smiled at the loud laugh and curious gestures of the pilot. 'Gentlemen,' said he, 'almost a blank shot! ' And so it was, for, on following the birds as one after another peeped up from the water, we found only a few unable to take to wing. 'Now,' said the pilot, 'had you waited until I had spoken to the black villains, you might have killed a score or more of them.' On inspection, we found that our shots had lodged in the tough dry twigs of which these birds form their nests, and that we had lost the more favourable opportunity of hitting them, by not waiting until they rose. 'Never mind,' said the pilot, 'if you wish it, you may load The Lady of the Green Mantle [the Marion] with them in less than a week. Stand still, my lads; and now, gentlemen, in ten minutes you and I will bring down a score of them.' And so we did. As we rounded the island, a beautiful bird of the species called Peale's Egret, came up and was shot. We now landed, took in the rest of our party, and returned to Indian Key, where we arrived three hours before sunset. "

Audubon continued to explore nearby mangrove islands and collect specimens that day and returned to Indian Key three hours before sunset. Audubon writes,

"The sailors and other individuals to whom my name and pursuits had become known, carried our birds to the pilot's house. His good wife had a room ready for me to draw in, and my assistant might have been busily engaged in skinning, while George Lehman was making a sketch of this lovely isle.

Time is precious to the student of nature. I placed several birds in their natural attitudes, and began to outline them. A dance had been prepared also, and no sooner was the sun lost to our eye, than males and females, including our captain and others from the vessel were seen advancing gaily towards the house in full apparel. The birds were skinned, the sketch was on paper, and I told my young men to amuse themselves. As to myself, I could not join in the merriment, for, full of the remembrance of you reader, and of the patrons of my work both in the Americas and in Europe, I went on "grinding" -not on an organ . . . but on paper, to finishing, not merely of my outlines, but of my notes respecting the objects seen this day ."

"The room adjoining that which I worked, was soon filled. Two miserable fiddlers screwed their screeching silken strings - not an inch of catgut graced their instruments; and the bouncing of brave lads and lasses shook the premises to the foundation. One with a slip came down heavily on the floor, and the burst of laughter that followed echoed the isle. Diluted claret was handed round to cool the ladies, while a beverage of more potent energies warmed their partners. After supper our captain returned to the Marion, and I with my young men, slept in swinging hammocks under the eaves of the piazza."

Audubon had promised his wife he would sleep always on the Marion as she was afraid he would down with a tropical fever. This is the only known instance were he did not tend to his promise.

Audubon is anxious to pursue his project and wakes his exploration party up early the next morning.

"It was the end of April, when the nights were short, and the days therefore long. Anxious to turn every moment to account, we were on board Mr. Thruston's boat at three next morning. Pursuing our way through the deep and tortuous channels that everywhere traverse the immense muddy soap -like flats that stretch from the outward Keys to the Main, we proceeded on our voyage of discovery. Here and there we met with great beds of floating sea-weeds, which showed us that Turtles were abundant there, these masses being the refuse of their feeding. On talking to Mr. Thruston of the nature of these muddy flats, he mentioned that he had once been lost amongst their narrow channels for several days and nights, when in pursuit of some smugglers' boat, the owners of which were better acquainted with the place than the men who were along with him. Although in full sight of several of the Keys, as well as of the main land, he was unable to reach either, until a heavy gale raised the water, when he sailed directly over the flats, and returned home almost exhausted with fatigue and hunger. His present pilot often alluded to the circumstance afterwards, ending with a great laugh, and asserting that had he "been there, the rascals would not have escaped.

"Coming under a Key on which multitudes of Frigate Pelicans had begun to form their nests, we shot a good number of them, and observed their habits. The boastings of our pilot were here confirmed by the exploits which he performed with his long gun, and on several occasions he brought down a bird from a height of fully a hundred yards. The poor birds, unaware of the range of our artillery, sailed calmly along, so that it was not difficult for 'Long Tom,' or rather for his owner, to furnish us with as many as we required. The day was spent in this manner, and towards night we returned, laden with booty, to the hospitable home of the pilot.

For a continuation of this account by Audubon go to Sandy Key. 

Indian Key Today

Indian Key is now uninhabited and owned by the State of Florida and is open for tours through the Recreation and Parks Division. There you will find a great many Yucatan sisal plants growing which are no doubt descendants of those planted on the island by noted botanist Dr. Henry Perrine in the 1830s. Dr. Perrine was killed during an Indian attack on Indian Key in 1840.

You will also find mangrove, palms, sea grapes and any number of flowering plant, together with some old building foundations, several cisterns from a period of time when the Navy spent time on the island, and a more recent observation tower built by the Park Service. Access to the Island is by private boat or by an excision boat from Robbie's Marina.  


ISLAMORADA BIRDING AND THREE PLACES OF LODGING

Not far from Indian Key is Islamorada with lodging at Cheeca Lodge, the Chesapeake Resort, and the Islander Resort. Cheeca has a children's program. These are good places to stay between birding excursions in the Middle Keys.

Personnel at these resort will assist you in getting directions and finding water transportation and recommended guides to Indian Key. Guides are also available for birding trips to Sandy Key , nearby mangrove islands and the Everglades.

A guide out of Islamorada is Capt. Anne Baxter - MM 81.5 at WildWorld Sportsman. Islamorada, 305-852-4553

Adventure tours for the kids and family, specialty tours, Indian key ruins, Everglades, ocean reefs, photography, wildlife identification, learn ecology and science while in search of dolphin, reddish egrets, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills and sea turtles. half day or full day of exploring the waters of the Florida Keys, remote shallow bays and narrow creeks where tropical wildlife lives. Birding tours are usually around sunset when the birds are coming to roost.

For more information click on Easy Adventures at www.keysboats.com

1. Cheeca Lodge
P.O. Box 527, Mile Marker 82
Islamorada,   Florida  United States  33036

 

RESERVATIONS AND INFORMATION for Islamorada

 

Cheeca Lodge has 203 rooms and suites and is a luxury resort located in Islamorada.

Cheeca offers a child's activity program for a fee for vacationers staying at the resort. Camp Cheeca for ages 6 to 12 provides full day and half day sessions depending on the number of children signing up.

 
2. Islander Resort
Mile Marker 82.1
Islamorada,   Florida  United States  33036

114 rooms - 92 of which have fully equipped kitchenettes. All rooms have tile floors, color TV, dining table with four chairs, and one double and one single bed. Kitchenettes include a refrigerator, 20" stove, plates, silverware, and pots and pans.

Over twenty acres of tropically-landscaped grounds. All but two rooms are ground floor, with parking close by your room. Eleven-hundred feet of ocean frontage, with a 200-foot fishing pier. Over twenty acres of beautifully landscaped grounds - directly on the ocean.

 

3. Chesapeake Resort
83409 Overseas Hwy.
Islamorada,   Florida  United States  33036


Forty-four rooms - Chesapeake Resort offers a choice of guest rooms, eight suites, and 13 villas with fully-equipped kitchens. Most rooms open to spectacular water views, with others framing the lush gardens tended by the resort's resident horticulturist.

 

   


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